Chernobyl: Examining myths and legends about the nuclear disaster

Jack Unwin 27 June 2019 (Last Updated June 18th, 2020 14:41)

In light of HBO’s recent hit historical drama series Chernobyl, several old myths about the nuclear disaster have remerged. Jack Unwin takes a look at some of the more fanciful stories surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Chernobyl: Examining myths and legends about the nuclear disaster
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has attracted its fair share of horror stories and conspiracy theories. Credit: IAEA

The release of HBO’s Chernobyl has undoubtedly led to an increase in dialogue on nuclear power, its safety and the disaster itself. Numerous articles have both praised the show and questioned some of the science and historical accuracy behind it, but there has also been a cottage industry of horror stories about the disaster and its aftermath.

From stories of mutated animals and people roaming the exclusion zone to the story of the only child born in the exclusion zone, tales have spread across the internet since the show’s release.

With our sceptic’s hat firmly on, we look at some of the strangest.

The blackbird of Chernobyl

Often following a disaster stories emerge about a portent of doom, often in the shape of real or imaginary creature.

In the Ivankiv Raion, the district of Ukraine where Chernobyl sits, people tell the story of the Black Bird, a human creature with wings and piercing red eyes. This apparition was alleged to have been seen by workers at the Chernobyl plant on 26April 1986, the day of the fateful accident.

After the event, it was reported that anyone who saw this creature suffered from nightmares and threatening phone calls – though how a winged creature could dial a phone was not questioned.

Australian archaeologist Robert Maxwell, who has worked at Chernobyl, told news.com: “Now it’s become one of those fables that’s difficult to track because it relies on the accounts of people who died due to radioactive contamination.”

Alien clean-up

Aliens are the bread and butter of myths and conspiracies from the pyramids to the Roswell crash. And, apparently, aliens also had a hand in the Chernobyl clean up.

Rather than being accused of causing the nuclear meltdown as part of a plot to take over the world, urban myths allege that extra-terrestrials helped prevent further disaster at Chernobyl as many expected to the catastrophic event to be even worse than it was.

An eyewitness named Mikhail Varitsky claimed he saw a fiery ball of light hovering for a few minutes above the exposed reactor on the night of the accident. This ball of light was also allegedly seen on 16 September 1989 when there was a further radiation leak from the unit at Chernobyl, which some imaginative narrators said came from aliens, who were containing the radiation.

Chernobyl linked to HIV-like condition

The Chernobyl disaster had a huge impact on East and Central Europe, both on the day-to-day lives of people in the region and on their health. The accident has been linked to the increase in thyroid cancer among other forms of cancer in the area for example, but it has also been the target for fake medical stories.

One of the more malicious of these myths links Chernobyl with an HIV-like illness. As the disaster coincided with the height of panic and ignorance surrounding HIV, the story received some traction.

Former Alabama congressman Glen Browder heard the story whilst visiting the area, writing for the Huffington Post that: “The most cruel thing I heard was the emerging rumour of “Chernobyl HIV”, a whispered warning against romance and friendship with impacted individuals. This damning gossip about some sort of infectious sickness among victims and survivors in that region is baseless; but fear-mongers have begun spreading the rumour anyway.

“Such talk not only hinders social opportunities for individual survivors; it discourage businesses from investing in impacted areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.”

Government cover-up

A disaster of this magnitude often attracts the standard conspiracy theory; that it was all orchestrated by the government, in this case the Soviet government.

According to one such theory, the Chernobyl disaster was conducted by the Soviet regime due to the failure of an incredible missile defence radio structure called Duga-3, also known as the “The Russian Woodpecker.” Suspected of being wildly over budget, the structure was deemed such an expensive flop that in order to eliminate it the nearby Chernobyl facility was allowed to go into meltdown.

Other government-level conspiracy theories include that the CIA sabotaged vital equipment at the plant, or that the disaster was a long-term plan by the Russians to turn Europe off building new nuclear plants and be reliant in Russian oil and gas.

Animal mutations

Immortalised by the three-eyed fish in The Simpsons, the idea of nuclear radiation causing severe mutations in animals and people has been a long-established idea, although one with little scientific foundation.

In the case of Chernobyl it was the basis of a video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl, set 20 years after the disaster and in alternative universe where a second reactor explosion caused lifeforms to mutate into monstrous versions of themselves.

In reality, although research showed that animals in the exclusion zone had smaller brains, cataracts, tumours and sterility, there aren’t three headed dogs or multi-eyed squirrels. Some have in fact branded the Chernobyl exclusion zone a paradise for wildlife, due mostly to the absence of people.